The two most challenging innovation times
Placing emphasis on the wrong thing
You see, ideas are simply a way station. Ideas can be thought of as a false peak. You'll recognize the concept of a false peak if you've climbed a mountain. Every time you crest a ridge you think you've reached the top, only to see in the distance a higher peak that may, or may not, be the summit. Ideas are not the output of innovation, they are an intermediate point, a way station to an onward destination. But because ideas are simple and tangible, we've placed emphasis on them. To be honest, ideas are the easy part of innovation. It's what comes before ideas, and what comes after, that are the real challenges.
What comes before ideas
What comes before ideas is the same set of activities and information that comes before any initiative: planning, preparation, information gathering, synthesis and decision making. Ideally someone identifies a key challenge or problem and everyone agrees on scope. There's nothing really new or unusual here, except that much of the planning and preparation for innovation doesn't happen. In a rush to get to ideas, we skip over much of what we'd agree is good project hygiene.
If you've ever tried to force an innovation team through that hygiene, however, you'll encounter resistance. People will complain that process and scope limit their thinking, reduce the set of ideas, slow them down. And they are right. But the best ideas - and remember that ideas are only the midpoint of the activity, not the end result - come from good planning, good interaction and good scope.
What comes after
What comes after a team generates ideas depends on your investment. How many times have you seen a team generate ideas in a brainstorming activity, clap each other on the back to recognize success and then dump the flip charts into the trash? Generating ideas is an activity, not an end point. What comes after idea generation in good innovation practice is a lot of hard work - evaluating ideas, refining them into viable product concepts, testing the concepts with customers and then putting the ideas into development, to launch a new product or service. That's hard, difficult work even for familiar products and services, leave aside the challenge or resistance encountered for new product ideas.
Many companies, with well-defined Stage-Gate or other product development methodologies struggle to consistently update their existing products. How difficult must it be to convert even good ideas into new products and services, and further, to launch new products and services into the marketplace?
It's only when you or your team realize that ideas are a way point that you begin to understand the real, value added work of innovation. It's the preparation, planning, trend spotting and customer insight work that leads to good ideas, and its the evaluation, prototyping, refinement, testing and delivery to product development that leads to new product launches. Innovation is a coherent process, starting with the recognition of needs or opportunities and ending with a successful launch of products customers value. Ideas form one small part of one important but short activity within the totality of the innovation process, and in fact generating ideas is probably the easiest activity. Good innovators understand that the real challenges lie before and after ideas.